A Case for Liberal Arts and STEM: Part Two

The overall point of this four part series is the assertion that there is a place for both types of education in today’s society and that liberal arts degree-holders can succeed just as easily in STEM careers. Part 1 is here.

Defining liberal arts is sometimes a challenge, because the definition has evolved. An early definition is this:

Henry David Thoreau writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”

That came from an article which purports that liberal arts are traditionally the birthright of the wealthy few, and the push for more vocational experiences for the working class is a means to maintain the disparate societal strata. (Play with these some to get an idea of how this has evolved in the United States.)

In more bold terms: vocational education makes better worker bees; liberal arts training makes leaders. There is probably some truth to this. In my prior post, I linked to several examples of “the rich” openly attempting to slash funding for public education in liberal arts and defending those actions as being in the best interest of students graduating into the current economy. However, I’ve seen just as many individual “rich” operating against that agenda. We operate not in a world of black and white, but gray. Personally, I believe there are always a number of competing agendas in this debate and summarizing one side’s motivations into one category does not serve the purpose of intellectual discourse. Ad hominem attacks are the basest form of debate.

We cannot, however, deny that race relations, class structure, gender issues and social programs are not part of the equation that makes up an individual identity and therefore contribute to the pathway the individual takes on the pursuit of happiness.

Many of you will be familiar with Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who holds that those who want to succeed in Silicon Valley should forego college altogether. (He himself has a degree in Philosophy and a law degree from Stanford). He co-founded PayPal and backed organizations such as Facebook and LinkedIn in their infancy. Why does Peter Thiel advocate dropping out of college altogether?

Thiel, who is Stanford-educated and now teaching a course on startups at his alma mater, was sure to clarify, however:

I’ve never claimed that nobody should go to college or that we should shut down all the universities in this country or anything like that. What I have argued is that there is no one-size-fits-all, and that we need to have a more diverse array of things that people, including our most talented people, can be doing.

That sounds like a pretty good endorsement for the idea that multiple pathways to success exist.

If we view the pathway from high school graduation to success in business or a technology firm as a journey level employee, there are many paths that could potentially lead to this place. If we instead define success as reaching a pinnacle such as becoming a CEO or a successful entrepreneur of such a business or tech firm, we might envision a slightly different pathway. The end game matters in the definition of the “right” way to get there.

Countless examples of successful people outside of that pathway likely exist; it is a perception that only one way is right. The fact is, the burden of achieving success is partially on the individual – if you provide the perfect environment for learning for one, you may inadvertently create an an environment that is not ideal for someone else – and it is entirely possible for external factors to drive someone to “drop out” (become a leak in the pipeline) even if they are “perfect” at following the steps.

A one-size-fits-all education will never be the only answer. People are diverse, there is an inherent bias in all of us toward other people who are not like us (it is how the brain works), and particularly for fields where women and minorities are disparately represented historically, there will be a tendency to favor one kind of education over the other. As one article points out, it is difficult for the in-group to imagine the challenges of the out-group in the same program because of the underlying decisions and behaviors that reinforce the success of the in-group.

There is inherent psychology of hiring, (not to mention retention and development of employees in your organization, a topic of a future post). As to why women change their career aspirations away from a male-dominant field after incurring significant costs to obtain the right degree, that has been well-studied and warrants a future post. If you want to get a head start on the research, take this case study for instance.

Peter Thiel is a white male venture capitalist (this merits repeating). He specializes in finding raw talent or ideas and putting money and advice into them to succeed in making more money back than he invested.

The vast majority of college students have been programmed to view college as a necessary step toward their career – an investment. With more and more graduates unable to find work in their chosen field, Thiel acknowledges the skills and talents that he has seen demonstrate success – namely, non-conformance to the idea that a degree is necessary for success and a willingness to take risks by starting your own business without the right piece of paper to back your credibility. When you turn the argument into a business case, he is right to question the inherent value of “a college degree” which is a very nice way of saying “I spent 4 years surrounded by my peers away from my parents and they gave me this nice piece of paper to take into the world when I was done – it’s my golden ticket.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the liberal arts,” Thiel assured the very author of this story who admitted to attending a liberal arts college. “I think there is a problem with amassing $100,000 of students loans in something where you can’t get a really well-paying job out of it on the other end.”

So, what’s the alternative?

“It’s really hard to say,” Thiel acknowledged. His “disturbing answer” is that students need to start figuring it out on their own (emphasis my own).

If he were making the choice today, though?

“If I had to do it over again, I might still very well go to Stanford; I think it’s a great university,” he said. “But I’d ask a lot of tougher questions as to why I’m doing this.”

Screen-Shot-2013-12-30-at-9.31.48-PM

This was Peter Thiel’s favorite graph of 2013. Like I said: it’s a business case. How about a few more?

In 2010, Steve Jobs famously mused that for technology to be truly brilliant, it must be coupled with artistry. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” Other tech CEOs across the country agree that liberal arts training—with its emphasis on creativity and critical thinking—is vital to the success of their business.

Steve Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, says that the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white. “In the dynamic environment of the technology sector, there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions,” he says. “There are just different shades of how correct you might be,” he says.

Yi says his interdisciplinary degree in East Asian Studies at Harvard taught him to see every issue from multiple perspectives: in college, he studied Asian literature in one class, then Asian politics or economics in the next.  (Link for both of these quotes)

Later on:

“The ability to quickly synthesize information and structure it in a way that is comprehensible to non-technical people is powerful,” says MediaAlpha’s Steve Yi.

Tech CEOs are generally keen to hire people trained in the humanities, partly because a large proportion of them have similar backgrounds themselves. (A third of all Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.) But for students coming out of liberal arts colleges, it can still be difficult to find work in the tech sector. Georgia Nugent, the former president of Kenyon College who is currently a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, says that top executives are not responsible for hiring entry level staff. Instead, recruiters and HR managers on the hiring front lines often use systems that pick candidates for tech jobs based on key terms like “coding” and “programming,” which many liberal arts graduates will not have on their resumes.

Nugent is concerned about this trend because she thinks that training students for very specific tasks seems shortsighted when technology and business is evolving at such a fast rate. “It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task,” she says. “We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.”

Stay tuned for Part 3 and Part 4. As always, I welcome comments and respectful discourse.

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One thought on “A Case for Liberal Arts and STEM: Part Two

  1. Pingback: A Case for Liberal Arts and STEM Education: Part One | stumpthesquirrels

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